In one of his many talks on Catholic/Eastern Orthodox relations, the sometimes irascible Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. declared that if you want to know what the Catholic Church teaches, look it up; it’s all written down (somewhere). Fr. Taft was responding in part to the tendency of some Orthodox to fudge on, if not fabricate, the Catholic Church’s position on any number of matters, ranging from Purgatory to the Papacy. Granted, it certainly doesn’t help that many Catholics themselves are less-than-clear on what the Church professes about these and many other things. With respect to Purgatory, for instance, the dogma itself is a lot less “grandiose” than many assume. In an article I wrote for The Angelus last December, “Latins and Greeks on Purgatory,” I pointed out the distinct (but ultimately unified) approaches of the Latin West and Greek East to praying for the dead, noting throughout that the dogma allows for several different emphases and opinions. The same can be sad as well of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Mother of God; Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition artfully avoids declaring whether or not Our Lady endured a bodily death before joining her Son in Heaven.
Reading is not only essential to learning what the Catholic Church professes; it also goes a long way toward understanding what her various members hold to as well. And so, when Latin Catholics or Eastern Orthodox begin going off about what the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church may or may not teach or emphasize based on its Byzantine patrimony, it would behoove both to consult that church’s recently translated catechism, Christ Our Pascha. Or, when it comes to the pending regularization of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), those wishing to know what the SSPX has to say on certain teachings from Vatican II, the Novus Ordo Missae, or the tumultuous pontificate of Pope Francis can click over to the SSPX’s U.S. District Website or pick-up one of the Society’s many publications. It’s not difficult. In fact, it’s really easy, especially in the “information age.” Then why, I wonder, is there so much misinformation being spread, not by word-of-mouth gossip in the pews, but in online forums! If one knows how to navigate to “Holier Than Thou Super Traddie News,” then surely they can type in s s p x dot o r g.
There are times when I am almost forced to believe that people remain willfully ignorant in order to perpetuate half-truths or outright fabrications that bolster their private narratives of how the world, and the Church, “really is.” Make no mistake about it. The potential regularization of the SSPX will splash cold water on the persistent neo-Catholic narrative of Vatican II being not just a “dogmatic council,” but the beginning of a “New Springtime” or “New Pentecost” in the Church. Similarly, those who have virulently defended the New Mass from any and all criticism emanating from traditionalist circles will have to come to grips with the fact that the classic Roman Rite as preserved by the SSPX and the various Ecclesia Dei groups has a right to exist not as “an exception,” but the norm. These two developments are probably even more revolutionary than the regularization of the Society itself. And so it is little wonder then that neo-Catholics and liberals avoid learning why the SSPX professes what it professes; it’s so much easier to spread misinformation under the banner of willful ignorance than to actually engage with positions and ideas one happens not to like. So much for the pursuit of truth.
I am sometimes asked by my secular friends, “Why are you Catholic?” Aside from the fact that Salvation can only be found through the Church, I try to emphasize that she is also “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). I like to further go on that her teachings are clear, available, and flow from both reason and revelation. But then I find myself stuttering a bit as I explain that despite the clarity of the Faith, there are many out there who actively seek to distort Church teaching in order to advance their ideological agendas. I have to explain, for example, how the Acton Institute can be run primarily by Catholics; actively promote their publications and lectures to Catholics; and insists on professing ideas that are unambiguously contra fide. At that point I realize how difficult it is to tell the “man on the street” to sit down with Leo XIII and Pius XI when ostensibly more learned men can’t seem to be bothered to do that very thing. It’s not that the great encyclicals condemning social, political, and economic liberalism are too “heady” or labyrinthine”; it’s that they disrupt a certain narrative of how the Church is supposed to relate to secular democracy, including secular democracy’s preferred economic system: capitalism.
Of course, from the beginning the Church has wrestled with misunderstandings, dissent, and heterodox teachings. As time has marched on, some of these misunderstandings have come to be seen as culturally or linguistically driven rather than clear instances of formal, obstinate heresy. Today, however, Catholics have the advantage of ready-at-hand access to what the Church teaches in full, along with theological explanations calibrated to a number of learning levels. And yet, distressingly enough, so few seem to care. They approach Church teaching in the same way the Clinton Administration approached homosexuals in the military: “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” As such, they can cozy up to their personalized narratives of what Catholicism allegedly is without letting the truth get in the way. Whatever comfort this irresponsible approach to Catholicism provides here on earth surely won’t be there in the next life. If any truth can penetrate the hearts of such persons, I pray it’s at least that one.